BONGPYEONG, South Korea—When it was over and his medal hopes were shattered, and his broken right thumb was painful but not as bad as the hematoma in his hip, Gus Kenworthy stood off to the side and gave a small but lovely lesson in how to treat other people.
The Olympics you see on NBC are not the same as the Olympics that unfold in the mountains and ice rinks of South Korea. NBC tries to distill dozens of events into compelling television for a mass audience. In person, all you see is one event at a time, and you often don’t know if anybody is watching back home. Minutes earlier, Kenworthy had kissed boyfriend Matthew Wilkas at the bottom of the slopestyle course, unaware that NBC would broadcast it, causing a minor commotion in the States.
Now here was Kenworthy, done for these Olympics, with only one more obligation: address the media in the mixed zone. But he put it off. He wanted to watch on the big screen as U.S. skier Nick Goepper put down his run. We like to think that all Olympians support their teammates, and most of them do. But nobody puts on a pair of skis as a kid and dreams of making the Olympics so he can finish 12th and cheer on a friend.
Goepper crushed his run, winning the silver medal, and Kenworthy clapped his ski poles together in celebration. The story here is not that he clapped. Most people would clap. It’s that he waited. He watched. He cared.
“If you look at me, I’m bummed but I’m not sulking,” he said after the competition. “I’m not crying. I’m really proud to be here. Being out at these games has kind of meant the world to me, just being myself and being authentic.”
In 2015, he revealed his sexual orientation to ESPN’s Alyssa Roenigk, and the past three years have been a strange mix of emotions for him. He was anxious before the story came out. He was scared to go to gay bars, as though his last days of being closeted were not to be wasted. After the story was published, the reactions overwhelmed Kenworthy. But he was stunned that even some Olympic teammates thought it was a publicity stunt. They didn’t get it because they were never kids who realized they were gay.
“The only way to really change perceptions, break down barriers, break down homophobia, is through representation,” he says. “That’s definitely not something I had as a kid.”
Kenworthy blocked legions of people on Instagram who called him a faggot, but he still hears almost every day from young gay people who are more comfortable living as themselves because of him. “That is the one thing I am most proud of,” he says. “It has not just been self-serving.”
Kenworthy’s friend, the YouTube star Tyler Oakley, surprised him by flying to South Korea to watch him ski. Between Kenworthy’s runs, Oakley gave the best description of why Kenworthy’s story matters. Oakley said he does not like the words role model. “Possibility model,” he says. Role models are people you try to be like. Possibility models encourage you to be who you are.
Four years ago, the world did not know Kenworthy was gay, but it was apparent he was a great teammate. He woke the morning of the ski slopestyle event in Sochi and told his teammate Joss Christensen: “You’re going to win the gold.” Christensen did. Kenworthy got silver. He had a bigger battle to win.
Being in the closet means that no matter where you go, and no matter what you achieve, you’re still in the closet. Says Kenworthy, “I had a long time where I would qualify first at the X Games, first or second, and then fall in the finals. The pressure got to me. I don’t know if it’s because I was in the closet I couldn’t compete, but I think it was something that was ever present in my mind. It was always distracting.”
In Sochi, Kenworthy was very conscious of what he was hiding. His kiss with Wilkas in PyeongChang was not for show.
“That’s something I wanted at the last Olympics, to share a kiss with my boyfriend at the bottom,” he says. “That’s something I was too scared to do for myself.”
He is not scared anymore. He finished 12th in South Korea because of the injury to his hip, and because his final shot at a medal “kind of sucked from the beginning for me, honestly.” But it was not because of the pressure.
Kenworthy has never felt better about himself—or worse about his country. Before the rise of Donald Trump, he did not even know there were still white supremacists in the United States, and suddenly they were all over the place.
He had said months ago that if he won a medal, he would not go to the White House, and some people will take joy in his failure to win a medal here. But understand: If America had elected Mitt Romney or John McCain, Kenworthy would have gone to the White House.
“I’m not not going because it’s a Republican president,” Kenworthy said in September. “It’s just the things Trump has done.”
Kenworthy did not set out to be a gay icon. He just got tired of the alternative. He has listened incredulously as a fellow Olympian expressed doubts about climate change, and he endured awkward silences at a team dinner in Austria when politics came up. But he did not want to preach.
So there was Kenworthy, at the bottom of the hill, waiting for Nick Goepper. Four years ago, they posed with Christensen for an SI photographer in the Olympic mountain village in Russia, then walked back to their rooms and talked about where the sport might be headed. They had no idea where they were headed.
Kenworthy would come out. Goepper would feel lost and depressed after Sochi, drink way too much, and go through a treatment program. He says he has not had a drink in more than two years. Goepper just went from bronze to silver. Kenworthy went from second to 12th. Both men feel they’ve improved.